1899: Rail Transportation Comes to Korea

September 18, 1899

The Gyeongin Line, the first railway built on the Korean peninsula, was opened after two-and-a-half years of construction. The initial segment of the line, covering approximately 21 miles (33.8 kilometers) in what is now the northwestern region of South Korea, linked the capital city of Seoul with the port city of Jemulpo (present-day Incheon). The first trains serving the line traveled at about 12 miles (20 kilometers) per hour. At the time of the Gyeongin Line’s debut, the entire peninsula was a sovereign state known as the Korean Empire. (The specific section of the peninsula where the line was built has long been called Gyeonggi-do, which is the Korean phrase for “the area surrounding the capital.”)

The Gyeongin Line was financed and constructed by the Gyeongin Railway Joint Stock Company. Shibusawa Eiichi, a prominent Japanese industrialist, served as the company’s president. The development of this means of public transit was seen as a major stride in the Korean Empire’s modernization efforts during the late 19th century. Among other things, the Line considerably reduced travel times in that region of the peninsula.

A large portion of the Line is now a key part of Seoul’s internationally renowned subway system, which serves one of the largest metropolitan areas across the globe. In September of each year, the anniversary of the Gyeongin Line’s opening is commemorated in South Korea to help highlight the significant role of railways in that part of the world. An especially notable celebration took place during the observance of the 110th anniversary in 2009. The festivities included the dedication of the new headquarters for the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL), South Korea’s national railway operator, in the city of Daejeon.

Those attending the tape-cutting ceremony for KORAIL’s new building included Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director-general of the International Union of Railways, and he used the opportunity to emphasize what had been accomplished in public transit on the Korean peninsula since the inauguration of the Gyeongin Line. He proclaimed on behalf of his organization, “We highly acknowledge the incredible achievement Korea has made in the railway industry.” Huh Joon-young, KORAIL’s chief executive officer, likewise discussed that legacy in his own remarks during the ceremony, saying, “For the last 110 years, our railways have led the nation’s economic development and served our people in their daily lives.”

For more information on the Gyeongin Line, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeongin_Line.

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